Our Life In The Circular Economy

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We can all agree on something: humankind is capable of producing massive amounts of junk. We want to make it disappear but it’s hard to imagine it ever disappearing. Except aluminum. A mountain of scrap aluminum can be recycled, reformed, and then back on the shelves in the form of cans within just six weeks. Because demand for aluminum is high for things like beverage containers and building supplies, it makes it a desirable and lucrative recyclable material for collection.

alt="escama studio soda pop tab"

Aluminum scrap is also the DNA of Escama Studio, and in Brazil it’s the raw material that we use for all of our products. But instead of recycling, we up-cycle the aluminum scrap in its original form to make handbags. Here is the fascinating journey of how the circular economy operates on a micro level and how we go from aluminum pop tab to up-cycled purse.   

People often ask where did we get so many tabs? Are these real? The short answer is: the tabs are all from Brazil -- this is where we make our products and the tabs also come from Brazil.  And yes, the tabs are real, they’ve been taken off of a can and haven't been bought from a factory. But here is the long answer…..

 alt="brazil recycles aluminum at very high rates"

Illustration: Magdalena Metryckya

It turns out that Brazil is not only a champion in soccer, it's also a champion of aluminum recycling. In 2020 Brazil recycled 97.4% of all aluminum cans. That means that practically every can consumed was collected and recycled. This feat has been repeated almost every year for the past 20 years. Part of Brazil’s success as a top recycler can be attributed to the organized work of scrap collectors or ‘waste pickers’.

alt="waste picker in Brazil collecting aluminum"

 

Illustration: Magdalena Metryckya

Over 200,000 people in Brazil are involved in ‘waste picking’ – the gathering and sorting of recyclable materials including aluminum but also cardboard and plastics. For many years Brazil has worked on the federal and municipal levels to organize waste pickers to improve their livelihoods, and these initiatives have been welcomed by workers in the informal economy. In Brazil there are individuals who collect recyclables independently, but there are also organized groups of waste pickers who operate as an association and work in the same job for a decade. There are others with contracts to businesses or a cities. Recycling in Brazil is literally hands-on, so when a buyer requests to purchase aluminum pop tabs (and not cans), the tabs are taken off the can manually and then sold as a new commodity. This is the supply chain that gathers together the raw materials for Escama Studio products. For two decades, the artisans who make Escama purses have bought huge quantities of aluminum tabs through this network of suppliers and recyclers.

alt="escama purses are made from upcycled aluminum"

Illustration: Magdalena Metryckya

Three duffel bags filled with raw aluminum tabs are purchased from a recycling center. There are tens of thousands of tabs and each one has been separated from a can. But they are far from being ready to go into a purse. The tabs first need to go through multiple steps of preparation: they’re sorted to eliminate damaged or bent pieces, then each one is trimmed of sharp edges or filed smooth. The next step - they’re washed clean and polished. Only then does the artistry of crochet bag making begin. alt="upcycled aluminum used to make escama purses"

  Illustration: Magdalena Metryckya

The artisans are masters of a crochet technique that incorporates up-cycled aluminum pop tabs to create a metallic 'chainmail fabric'. It's a craft that takes a simple found object and transforms it into an art form and a livelihood that supports artisans and their families. As members of a cooperative, the artisans often crochet together as a group, but for the past year they have all worked independently at home with family. As a micro enterprise rooted in the community, the collective trains new members to help local women to financially support themselves through craft production.

alt="circular economy upcycled purse escama studio" 

The up-cycled aluminum pop tabs have changed many hands many times and have undergone multiple stages of preparation and cleaning. Along the way, this humble material has helped to support the livelihood of people transacting in the supply chain. It’s now reborn as an Escama purse, belt, or metallic jacket. Through creativity and a love of craft, the simple pop tab is transformed into art that can be worn for many years to come.

Illustrations by Magdalena Metrycka

Further reading:

WIEGO.org report on informal economy and waste pickers

WIEGO.org statistics of waste pickers in Brazil

Inclusive cities - Informal Economic Monitoring Study

Brazil aluminum recycling overview

2020 Brazil aluminum statistical yearbook

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4 comments


  • Sharon Mueller-Myers

    I bought my first bag in Las Vegas 13 or 14 years ago. I have ordered 6 bags of different styles since that time. I use my main bag daily and it never fails that strangers, male and female, will comment on my bag. I always tell them to go to escama.com and read about the bags and their history.


  • Cindy Hawkins-Legorreta

    We are now living in New Orleans, and it occurs to me there is no such enterprise here in the Easy. I need to get my Escama Studio necklaces and bag out, and take them around, show them to our shop owners.


  • Denise Salomon

    They are truly works of art


  • Jutta

    I love my escama bag :):):)
    Thank you so much for this special upcycling 😀


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